Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Would you like to see my holiday snaps?

In the interests of not boring anyone with endless photos, I have managed to upload a heap of photos to the photoalbum. Should you desire, they are all here, just click the link.

If anyone would like a personal slide show with personal commentary, by all means let me know. But I understand if you don't.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Things I love about my husband

This is a soppy one, people, so I apologise in advance, and if you're at all cynical about lovey-dovey stuff, best avert your eyes now.

This trip; twelve weeks now of traveling together, being in each other's company basically 24/7, has provided some interesting insights for both of us. Sandy and I are both people who like to spend time alone, I think, so I did wonder how we would go being constantly together for such a long time. And traveling can be stressful, as everybody says. But it's turned out to be wonderful. We have really enjoyed each other's company. And I have had the chance to really appreciate lots of little qualities about my husband, which are some of the reasons why I love him to bits. Things like:

His joy in small things
Little things please Sandy no end. I love that he gets a kick out of the frogs in the pond, freshly-mown grass, big old olive trees, kids playing on the street, funny road signs. I made him a little photo album to bring away with pictures of our place, family and friends. He loves that album and loves showing it to people; it was a better gift than anything I could have bought.

His wacky theories
Such as: dark clothes are hotter than light-coloured clothes. I understand this if we're talking about a light shirt versus a dark shirt. But according to Sandy ALL dark clothes will make you hotter, even if it's a dark coloured tank top. He has all kinds of great pronouncements to go with his theories, too, like: "Germans are the new Americans"; "Duck is the new chicken", etc. I'm thinking of writing these all down and making them into a book.

His pidgin French/Italian/Spanish
Sandy claims to have little ability to learn languages. But I don't think this is true. Everywhere we have been he has learned about 5 words; just the important stuff like hello, thank you, the bill please, etc. These he has fashioned into his own sort of pidgin English which he uses with me as we travel around. It's hilarious and quite cute, really.

He talks to anyone
Sandy will talk to anyone, anywhere, even if he doesn't know their language. He is a great sidekick for me, because sometimes I'm a bit shy about that. We've learned so much and made so many interesting discoveries because he's started conversations in all kinds of places with his big smile and his "gidday". And I love that he treats everyone equally, no matter who they are or what they do, and never condescendingly, as I've seen so many other tourists do when they're in foreign countries.

His planespotting tendencies
He loves planes, trains, infrastructure. He knows the layouts of different long-haul planes, he knows where planes are coming from/going when we see them flying overhead. He is fascinated with the TGV high-speed train. He's also fascinated with roads, tunnels, footpaths, gardens, roundabouts and, of course, the weather, wherever we are.

His willingness to go anywhere/eat anything with me
He's kept saying this trip is my trip; it's an investment in my future. Which is a pretty generous and lovely sentiment. (I hope he has got some pleasure from it, too. I'm pretty sure he has). To that end, he has not complained when I've made him go to a particular place or restaurant or town and eat yet another meal/see another market/find another food shop. He always lets me choose what we should eat off the menu, and he's happily gained several kilos in the pursuit of my culinary education.

His intolerance of rudeness
Sandy hates rude people, anywhere, and I love that about him, because I hate that, too. People who talk too loud, people who smoke or talk on cellphones in restaurants, people who don't say thank you when you open the door for them, people who barge in front of you when you're waiting in line. I also love that he's not shy (but not obnoxious either) about pointing out this rude behaviour.

He makes me laugh
As you will have gathered from all of the above. Which has got to be one of the most important things in a relationship, I reckon. Tonight, after dinner, he said "I feel like a python that's just eaten a sheep". This cracked me up. I make him laugh, too, at some of the silly things I do, but he never laughs at me in a nasty way.

His love for his friends
Sandy asked me what I thought was the highlight of the trip for him. After I'd made about thirty guesses, he told me that actually, reconnecting with Grant and Alistair was his highlight. I felt bad, not guessing that. Grant, you'll remember, was Sandy's lovely, talented friend who died in Paris just as we arrived in London, so "reconnect" is not the right word there. I think he was really pleased to have the opportunity to be there in Paris for Grant's service. Alistair is Grant's good friend in London, and Sandy really relished the chance he had to spend time with Al and his family. Which brings home that no matter what fabulous places you go in the world, the most important thing, really, is people.

A charmed life

I was sitting by the pool the other day, drinking a coconut juice, pondering where our travels have taken us. (As you do). A frangipani flower fell into the pool and was tossed about, bobbing and floating on the surface. It's just like us, I thought; it's a metaphor for our trip. We are the flower and the pool is fate, tossing us where it will. I'm pretty sure there wasn't any alcohol in that coconut, so maybe it was the sun causing me to make such cliched and corny observations. Anyway, it did get me thinking about luck.

We are lucky people. In many obvious ways, of course: having all this time to travel Europe, having the means to do it, having charm and good looks, etc etc. But also in the sense of random, serendipitous luck. That's how it's been during the past 12 weeks.

This trip has been charmed, in a way, and I'm really not sure why that is. There are so many situations where things have gone amazingly, when they could have turned out the complete opposite. For example, choosing Le Piggonet hotel in Aix en Provence - which we did randomly on the web site the day before we travelled there - set off a whole chain of amazing adventures in France. At Le Piggonet we met the lovely Stephanie, who set us up at Le Moulin de Lourmarin, and Le Couvent in St Maximin la St Baume, and who recommended Le Jardin d'Emile, in Cassis. These were places which were all extraordinary, and which we never would have found ourselves. (I checked - none of them rated a mention in our guide books).

Random choices, which we've made as a consequence of planning as we go, have worked out better than well almost every single time. The place we chose to stay in Mallorca - which we picked by pointing to a picture in a Barcelona travel agent's office - could have been one of those dreadful places on the beachfront surrounded by pie shops. (We had no way of knowing from the photo). But instead, and quite randomly, it was secluded, traditional and had a great restaurant. Ditto Phuket; choosing places to go based on their web sites is always a tricky endeavour, not to mention the difficulty of booking in a holiday resort place a day or two before you plan to turn up there. Our options were narrowing rapidly the day before we left London when we decided on Treetops, which we thought we could book and then if we hated, move on from after a couple of days. When we got here it was beautiful, they told us they had upgraded us and here we are, sitting in splendor on our sun deck, the panorama of the Andaman sea and palm trees set out before us. See? Lucky.

Food choices have been similarly charmed. We have eaten hundreds of meals, and really, only a few - less than a handful - have been duds. I think we've gotten really good at picking places now; my restaurant radar is now highly developed. Who needs guide books? I prefer to look at how happy the people are in a place, how smugly they look back at me, how the food looks on their plates. In Cassis, the place I honed in on, and where we ate twice, stood out a mile to me among the dozen others at the port. After we'd eaten there, flipping through my folder, I found it had been recommended in several UK food magazines. So I'm not unearthing hidden treasures, but I do have good taste.

I think we maybe have made our own luck in some ways. by being open to whatever happens. We are good travellers, I think, because we take our time, and are willing to be guided by what we find along the way, and we're not rigidly pursuing particular sights or attractions. We are happy to do nothing in a place. This, as I've said, is really affected by the fact that we've had so much time; I might be more inclined to tick things off a list had our time been limited to a few weeks.

An area in which we've been amazingly lucky - and over which we have zero control - is the weather. Europe in September, October and November was always going to be autumnal. But everywhere we have been, we have had brilliant weather, and practically everywhere, locals have said to us "It's not usually like this at this time of year", or words to that effect. Believe it or not, in nearly three months we have had only three or four rainy days. This has had a huge effect on what we've been able to do, as well as our general moods. We're starting to think we carry our own little weather system with us; even in London, although freezing, the sun shone every day. Which it doesn't always do.

Thai tastic

(with apologies for the cheesy headline)

How much do I love Thai food? I can't even start to count the ways.

Actually, I can. And I believe I will.

Around about when we got to Spain I really started to really miss the flavours of Asian food, especially Thai food. There is lot of Thai food in Auckland, and there is not a lot of Thai food in Barcelona. That applies to any European town or city we have visited. Even if I could have found it, I would not have wanted to eat Asian food in Europe; dedicated as I am to local cuisine. However, I can't say I was not looking forward to getting back here and immersing myself in those wonderful fresh, clean, zingy, zappy flavours.

Much as I have loved the food I've eaten all over Europe - and I really, really have, as you can probably tell from my ramblings - I do think that if I had to choose to eat food from just one country for the rest of my life, that country might be Thailand. It ranks right up there on my own personal list of great cuisines of the world. It's the lemongrass, the ginger, the fish sauce, the lime, the lime leaf, and the wonderful combinations these flavours make when they're used together to make Thai dishes. And the chillies.... mmmmm, the seductive heat of the chillies. Strangely enough I really did not eat many hot dishes in Europe, even in Spain. We didn't go to regions where chillies were a part of the local cuisine. So it's been extra nice arriving back in Thailand and getting that great, happy, high feeling you get from eating chillies in all their variety, once again.

Thai food is all about balance: sweet, salty, sour, hot. The Thais are really dedicated to this; noodle dishes are served with bowls of dried chillies, sugar, fish sauce and vinegar so that each person can get their dish balanced to their own taste. The Thai palate is very refined, I think, and sensitive to getting the balance absolutely right. When I had a Thai cooking lesson with the chef here, I would taste a dressing or sauce and say "Yum", while he would say "No, it needs more lime juice" (or fish sauce, or sugar, or chilli). It's important to him to get the complex, fascinating flavours singing together perfectly.

Chef Amnart is a lovely young man, executive sous-chef at Treetops, who taught me to make some simple, healthy dishes I'll be practising on friends and family very soon. First was laab gai; a spicy chicken salad with shallots, dried chilli, rice powder and a tangy dressing. Then we made pla goong; another salad of prawns and Thai herbs and the gorgeous zing of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Finally a spectacularly tasty thing called nam prik goong sieb, which is a dip made from shrimp paste, dried shrimps (a special kind I had never seen before, which Chef said were local to Phuket), chillies, palm sugar, lime juice and fish sauce, all pounded together in the mortar and pestle. This is served with vegetable crudites, and has instantly become my new favourite dip. I am on a mission, when I get home, to scour the Asian supermarkets of Auckland for the right kind of dried shrimps.

Thai food is inherently healthy, with its light dressings and quick cooking methods. "Thai food good for the body", said Chef Amnart, patting his flat stomach. I think he is right; there are not many fat Thai people. And I do find a feeling of wellbeing comes over me after every Thai meal. You feel completely satisfied, yet not stuffed. It's been practically like being in a health spa, the past week, for Sandy and I. We both feel lighter (although I have to say we don't look it). I guess the only dishes to be careful with in Thai cooking are the coconut-based curries, which while delicious, are (sadly) seriously high in saturated fat. Also the deep-fried things, but I get the feeling many of these, even in Thailand, are more for the westerners than truly authentic.

Thai food is also beautiful to look at. Every dish is colourful, interesting and fresh-looking, and when you're out, even in a basic cafe, dishes are garnished with bright fresh vegetables and fruit carved into intricate designs. In fact you can take a class to learn how to carve the fruit, too, although piggy that I am, I can't say this interests me that much. I'm more interested in things I can eat.

Chef Amnart has kindly given me more recipes in addition to the ones we cooked together; so I can cook Treetops food every night of the week at home, once we find one.

Monday, November 13, 2006

No plan, Stan

We're thinking about home now. And pretty soon, we'll be there. It's twelve weeks now since we left Auckland, and we have both come over all reflective about the trip, and life in general.

Sandy says - and I agree - that had we planned this trip six months or a year in advance, researched and pre-booked everything, got it all organised; we could not have had a better trip than we have had doing the opposite: making it up as we go along.

When we tell people this - people we meet on our travels - they have one of two reactions. They either think it is fantastic that we don't know where we're going next, how long we're staying or how we're getting there; or they are shocked and quietly appalled. With the latter type of person you can see it in their eyes that they would never want to travel this way themselves, and they think we're slightly odd.

To be honest it took me a while to get into the idea, too. Anyone who has travelled with me will tell you that I do like to research when I travel, particularly when it comes to food. I really hate the idea of missing an opportunity to eat something good, and leaving it to chance doesn't sit well with me. I hate wasting a mealtime on mediocre food.

I call this the Estasi effect. Estasi is a restaurant on Ponsonby Road in Auckland. It's an OK kind of a place, but nothing special. If you wandered in there as a tourist and had dinner, you'd probably think: well, that was OK, but quite forgettable. The thing is, Estasi is right next door to Prego, one of my favourite restaurants, and one of the classic restaurants of Auckland (it's just celebrated its 20th birthday, which is like a hundred years in the Auckland restaurant scene.) If you wandered into Prego instead of Estasi, you would be treated like someone special by the superb staff, you would eat excellent casual Italian food, drink good wine and generally leave feeling: wow, that was a really good experience from the moment I walked in the door. And the difference between these places is really only a few metres. So when you're in a foreign country, how do you know which is the Prego and which is the Estasi? This has caused me a few moments of anxiety as I contemplated potential treats missed.

But as it has turned out, not having a plan has been an excellent plan for us. Sure, we have had a few mediocre meals, but in general our restaurant radar has worked well. And we have had very few situations where we've been caught out, logistically, by not having a plan. On balance I think it has worked in our favour more than it has been a problem. Each decision has led to another opportunity.

There has been the odd glitch of course. Paris springs to mind; we decided to stay an extra night so we could make plans to go to Provence. What we didn't reckon on was the whole of Paris (apparently) being booked out because of September trade fairs. Add to that an unusually unhelpful tourist information centre ("All the hotels are full. I can give you a list and you can try calling") and we were wandering the streets, wondering what to do. This is where having a generous travel budget comes in handy. In Paris, we wandered into the Edouard VII hotel on the Avenue de l'Opera and asked if they happened to have a room. "Non," was the answer, but then "Oui," it became, as there had just been a cancellation. Hooray! We were saved. It was a lovely room, in a lovely hotel. It cost 450 euros. But at least we had a bed for the night.

In Barcelona we inadvertently wanted to leave the day after a Barcelona-Chelsea football match, when thousands of English football fans also wanted to fly to London. Gone were the 39 euro fares; full price was all that was available.

But other times these types of situations have become our reason to change our plans. If the place we thought we were going to stay was too busy, we took it as a sign to move on somewhere else. When it rained, we headed inland instead of to the coast. if we liked a place, we stayed on longer. These are things we could not have done had we been racing to meet the deadline of our next booking.

It must be said that it's easier to travel with no plan when you're prepared to spend a bit. Because yes, we have spent a lot of money. More than many people (us included, under normal circumstances) would realistically dream of spending on an overseas trip. We have said "Thanks, Skoop", many times. It's become a regular toast.

The other luxury we have is time. Who goes away for three months? It's a great feeling knowing there are weeks and weeks ahead of you and nothing definitely planned to fill them. Probably especially for me, since my normal working life is ruled by endless, iron-clad deadlines. It feels truly luxurious to say "Where shall we go today?", and if we feel like it, to do absolutely nothing. I'm really glad we didn't have to try and fit four countries into four weeks, or six weeks, or whatever. I've met too many people who are spending their vacations racing the clock. Gotta see this, gotta go there, gotta do it all before we have to go home. I hate that feeling. I have really enjoyed the times we've just hung out. Just sat, watched the world, soaked it in. You can't do that on a deadline either. Or at least I can't.

So time and money, time and money. Throw these things together and you do have the makings of a pretty unforgettable trip. But there's also been a lot of luck, a lot of wondrous, crazy serendipity. I'll write more on this later.

Looking back I don't think I would have wanted my first European adventure to be any other way. Europe is an expensive place; it just is, whatever the exchange rate . I don't see how you can do it on a meagre budget. (Well, I do see HOW you can do it, and it involves backpacks and velcro sandals. No thanks.) Even living simply, as we have done, really, costs money. A coffee is the same in euros as it is in pounds as it is in dollars; there are very few items which are cheaper once you do the conversion. Wine in France is the only one I can think of, actually. (Which is no small thing, I might add).


I can't believe how good I felt to be back in south east Asia. It was weird; even coming into Bangkok airport after the flight from London, seeing all the Asian faces; it just felt more like home somehow, more comfy and familiar.

We arrived on the island of Phuket at night, so we really couldn't see what was around us until we woke up, jetlagged and groggy, in the morning. What a beautiful place we have ended up in. Our villa at the Treetops resort is perfect for our last fling before home; private, gorgeous view, lovely deck, little pool, lush garden, outdoor shower, etc etc. Asian hotels really know how to do luxury; the attention to detail is brilliant and the Thai love of beauty and balance is apparent everywhere. It's the kind of place where you just want to flop down on the big white bed with the great big view and not get up for a week. Sounds good to me.

We both felt a little funny about coming to Phuket after what has happened here in recent history. Not because we are scared of another tsunami; more a feeling of not wanting to celebrate and be decadent in a place where people suffered and died in that terrible event. But on the other hand, the people of Phuket rely on tourism for an income, so we are contributing by being here, and indeed the Thais have really pushed for tourists to return in the two years since. So we chose a place on the hill, near a beach that was apparently not badly affected by the disaster. You would never know, sitting on a lounger on our deck, that anything bad had ever happened here. In fact, that applies to almost everywhere we've been on the island. If you didn't know, you wouldn't know.

And yet it is on my mind at the same time as I enjoy this beautiful place. It is so beautiful; looking at the water on our little beach, Saron, it looks so benign. The same at Patong. It's very hard to imagine that water hurting anyone. But over 500 people were killed in Phuket, and the devastation was huge. It's a tribute to the spirit of the Thai people, I think, that things are so positive and normal now.

Thai people are so lovely. They're beautiful and graceful and compact. They smile readily and genuinely. They drive like crazy people; steering their motorbikes with abandon and without helmets through the traffic loaded up with everything from soup pots to toddlers. (I've seen some things that would give road safety campaigners in NZ a heart attack.) And they seem to sincerely love to talk to visitors. The people in Phuket seem quite philosophical and resilient about the tsunami. I guess they have to be. A nice man in a tiny shop in Patong showed us photos of the street we were standing in, in the aftermath, and pointed out the shop itself. It appeared as a bombed-out crater. He smiled and showed us a selection of books of photos and dvds of photos of the tsunami which were available for sale. We declined, but gave him the cover price anyway. You have to admire the sense of enterprise. One of our waiters seemed to think the people were partly to blame for the deaths; they'd been warned about tsunami, he said, they just forgot. His view was that it could have been much worse; it was a Sunday and there were no school groups on the beach, as there would have been on any other day.

Patong beach, the town, at night, is a bit of a G-rated version of Patpong Road in Bangkok (See pussy ping pong, back in the August archive). There are a few token transvestites, a few go-go girls, a few hawkers for shows (it's not "pussy ping pong", here; it's the more coy "ping pong show". They will show you eye-watering photos of the show though, which I wish I had not seen). Mostly it's lots of shops and stalls selling all sorts of things; fake handbags and watches and clothing, tacky souvenirs, pirated CDs and DVDs. And tourists; lumbering, pale, sweaty tourists, us among them. Most of them (us) are harmless enough. But you see the icky sight of old, pot-bellied guys with pretty, pubescent Thai prostitutes. And the usual fashion crimes that come with beach resorts. Really, what is it about tropical climates that makes white girls think that cornrows look good? Or tight leopard-print items? Or velcro sandals? (oh, how I hate velcro sandals). Last night's winner was a middle-aged guy in a knit fabric track suit so thin it was almost transparent. The legs of the suit flopped above his ankles, which were clad in - not joking - socks and sandals (velcro). There was also a bum bag just to top the whole look off. I sincerely hope the poor Thai girl who was with him was being paid extra for her tolerance of such a tragically-dressed escort.

There also seem to be more than a few oddballs and misfits among the crowd. Some of them live here, I think; attracted by who knows what - girls, boys, cheap living, perhaps. You see far too many bald heads and ponytails, old tattoos, tie-dyed T-shirts, denim cut-off shorts. Inevitably they are middle-aged guys, 50-ish, weathered. And they always have Thai girls in tow.

Of course almost everything we've eaten in Phuket has been fantastic. More on that soon.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Since there's really not a lot of entertainment to be had in the food in London, and since we could not get out of London until Monday, we decided to have some different kinds of fun over the weekend.

Saturday is a huge shopping day in Regent and Oxford Streets. Shopping seems to be a main recreational activity for Londoners; there are so many people everywhere, it's a bit overwhelming, really. And you do not want to go into any of the big stores, like TopShop. It is mayhem. Truly. Since it's quite wearying having to fight to spend your money in the shops, instead we wandered the streets, and it felt quite festive in a way. The Christmas decorations are up everywhere in London (talk about early!) and with everyone all rugged up in their winter clothes, this is about as close as I've ever been to a white Christmas. Or a winter Christmas, even.

Regent St was partly blocked off on Saturday for a big vintage car rally. The cars were all laid out on display in the middle of the street. They were beautiful; some of them like pieces of sculpture. At the same time, in Trafalgar Square, was a huge rally demanding action on global warming (the Stern Report was released this week; a massive UK government report basically saying global warming is going to cause global economic crisis if nothing is done to curb greenhouse emissions. There's a surprise). The irony of these two events being on at the same time did not escape us.

As we walked we decided, what could be more London than a West End show? We took the plunge and got last-minute tickets for Saturday night at the ticket booth in Picaddilly Circus.

Spamalot is, as you might guess, the Monty Python musical. It's a new hit at the Palace Theatre, and was written by MP original, Eric Idle. I'm not a huge Monty Python fan, or a musical fan actually; many of them are too cheesy for words, if you ask me. All that emoting and screechy singing. But Sandy is a fan of musicals and Monty Python too, plus he assured me that a West End show is a thing to remember. So I thought well, OK; it'll be a bit of a chuckle.

But of course it was far more than that. It was hilarious! And very clever, mocking and parodying the whole Musical genre. Sandy said he hasn't laughed so much in years. Super clever. We had a reasonable dinner at quite a nice restaurant across the road from the theatre beforehand, and a glass of champagne in the Polo bar at our hotel afterwards. It felt very London.

The fun continued on Sunday, when we rounded off proceedings by heading across town to Twickenham to watch the All Blacks play England. We were part of the largest ever crowd at the ground; 82,000 people. About 80,000 of them were England fans of course, so we felt quite outnumbered. It was a strange feeling being the only ones singing the anthem. I finally memorised the Maori anthem words; I've felt bad for years that I didn't know it all. Good old Hayley Westenra did the singing at the ground, which, while sweet, was extremely high! So I got a bit screechy myself.

We were relieved, in fact, that we were there at all. We'd bought the tickets on eBay and frankly until we were in our seats we were both skeptical. Of course our Black boys did us proud and, frankly, slaughtered the English. Which was fun. But the weird thing was, the English fans were all incredibly polite and gracious, or at least the ones around us were. Sandy and I were going crazy cheering the ABs, and there was a lot to cheer about. Sandy was looking for friendly banter, like you'd have from the Aussies, but every time he made a comment (which everyone could hear, since the Poms were pretty quiet) the English fans would all go: yes, you're right, well played, etc. On our way out, after a 41-20 defeat (the largest ever defeat of England at Twickhenham, it emerged) people around us actually shook our hands in congratulations! "You'd think I was the coach or something", Sandy said.

Poor Sandy didn't really get any post-match banter either; at the pub where we ate dinner (forgettable) the fans were all pretty pissed, Kiwi or English. But on the train on the way back into town, we ran into some die-hard English fans, who, believe it or not, thought the All Blacks were "lucky" to win, and that their boys really did quite well. It was as if they had been at a different game. Well. This was the catalyst for a reasonably intense debate, you might say. As you can imagine. And I think it could have gone a different way if Sandy hadn't been smiling broadly as he made his own personal post-game analysis. (Afterwards he told me he was glad his puffer jacket made him look bigger than he is. One of these guys was rather large). But it ended with handshakes all round and good wishes for our travels as our new friends got off the train. Although I don't think they had been persuaded the ABs were a better team. They were true, blind fans. Perhaps reading the next day's papers they may have been swayed, which all unanimously echoed Sandy's assessment (which was that he All Blacks hardly got out of first gear). Sandy thought the rugby writers must have been on the train listening to him.

Also on the train was a young American from Boston, for whom this was his first ever game of rugby. He was extremely drunk, but very very funny. He could not get over how friendly us rival fans were; he said if he, as a Bostonian, had hopped on to a New York train after his team had just thrashed their team, they'd throw him off the train. "I like your husband", he said to me. He was impressed that Sandy seemed to be bagging the English team to a bunch of English fans, but managing to do it with a smile and without getting his teeth kicked in. I was impressed with that myself, actually. When we hopped off the train, Sandy gave the American his black NZ beany to wear in to the office the next day. We had fun imagining him on Monday morning, and the look on his English colleagues' faces.

London in winter....

No food news to report. This is because we are back in London, where good eating opportunities are quite thin on the ground.

I shouldn't say that, really. We had a delightful lunch on Wednesday at Carluccio's Neal St restaurant, with our friend, Neil, who lives here on a canal boat. The great man himself (Antonio) was in attendance, which got both Neil and I excited. I had met Signor Carluccio before, when he came to New Zealand a few years back. After lunch I went over to say hello, like a fan. Of course he remembered me straight away. (Ha, not really.) But he was very gracious and charming, and asked if we enjoyed our lunch (we did; lobster linguine, sea bass, tiramisu) and said he was thinking of coming back to New Zealand soon because of his winemaker friend, Daniel Schuster. So; you read it here first.

We also had a nice lunch at the Habitat cafe in Regent St, which reminded me of a Ponsonby Road cafe: communal tables, fresh salads ( a lovely puy lentil number like I myself might have whipped up), nice coffee. And of course we have eaten well from Pret a Manger, which must be my favourite place to eat in London. What a great philosophy they have: fresh, real food, friendly staff, good morals. And pretty decent coffee as well. I love all their literature which explains their philospies on everything from hiring of staff to the giving away of leftover food. The most fun one was on the same street as the Conde Nast office, where we had breakfast and watched all the skinny, nervy Vogue-ettes on their way to work.

We had a reasonable Italian meal at a little restaurant near our hotel with my lovely cousin Ana. The maitre d' took a shine to her and tried to get her to go downstairs, where they had a dancefloor, and dance with him. He thought he was pretty charming, I must say. I think Ana thought he was a little creepy. And we ate a really nice Chinese meal at a tiny local place across the road from our hotel on our first night back in town. I must say the first bit of ginger I've eaten in a couple of months tasted pretty great.

London in November is quite different from London in August. For one thing, the temperature is about half. As Billy Connolly says, there's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes; and our clothes were really not up to the job. We were forced to buy jackets, hats, gloves and scarves. I got a big puffer-style thing from H&M which makes me look like the Michelin man, but feels like a big duvet wrapped around my middle. Perfect. Sandy picked up a similar sort of thing for 11 pounds, believe it or not, at a store called Primark. This is a massive, hangar-like shop full of the most unbelievably cheap clothes. It's mayhem - Sandy reckoned there were more garments on the floor in there than there would be hanging in most NZ shops - but it is incredibly cheap. Neither of us can figure out how they do this - it's practically disposable fashion - and I have a suspicion the answer is not good, ethical or environmentally friendly. But, we were freezing, and using NZ dollars.

We had booked for three days into a hotel we found on We've been doing this all trip, and mostly it's worked out pretty well for us. This time, it turned into a bit of a Fawlty-Towers-style experience. The hotel, in Paddington, had only been open a month, and billed itself as four stars, luxury, "with all the facilities the frequent traveler requires". This would be true, if the frequent traveler did not require air conditioning, an elevator, internet access, room service or a glass of wine. Our room was on the fourth floor, up eight flights of stairs. The room was boiling hot, so much so that we were forced to sleep with the window wide open (it was 10 degrees outside) and sleep on top of the bed. Forget that the room was only just slightly larger than the bed, and the power went off on the last morning as we were trying to shower and dress. We had a robust discussion with the manager about all this, before departing for Bond Street, where we checked into a real hotel, the Westbury. Sandy used to stay here years ago when he traveled for business, and I can see why. We have a lovely big room ( at a nice temperature), friendly service (doors opened, "hello" said), and a brilliant location just around the corner from Oxford Circus and the one shop anyone who's anyone needs to visit in London: TopShop.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

mmmmm market

Some people come to Barcelona and marvel at the architecture, visit the art galleries, hang out in the nightclubs. Some people get a kick out of the human statues along La Rambla, or the Gaudi buildings, or the Picasso Museum. Me, I like all that stuff, too. But I really get a kick out of the food.

La Boqueria market might be the best food market I've been to, anywhere. It is huge - much bigger than the Mercato Centrale in Florence, and quite a bit more interesting. It's a living market (as well as being something of a tourist destination) where you can eat and drink as well as stock up on fruit, veg, fish and meat. For sure, there are things there that shock tourists, especially sensitive or vegetarian ones (who should look away now). There are whole baby piglets, sheep heads, fresh and fluffy rabbits, snouts, edible insects and all manner of tripe and offal. There are some truly gruesome-looking fishes, lots of live and crawling crabs and lobsters, still-slithering snails and teeny tiny unidentified sea creatures. To me, these are the things that make the market fabulous. Along with, of course, all the other great stuff. Every fruit and vegetable you can think of, for example. Gorgeous dried fruits and funghi. And oodles of the cured hams and sausages the Spanish are so proud of. Oh how I wished I had a kitchen to cook in! The fish section in particular was fabulous. When you walk through dozens of fish and seafood stalls in an enclosed space and all you can smell is a fresh sea smell, you know the seafood is really fresh. We watched a large, smiling lady enthusiastically dissecting - with a terrifyingly large cleaver - the head of some strange, giant fish. We loved the many, multi-coloured varieties of prawns, and the succulent razor clams.

Since we couldn't buy, we had to make do, instead, with eating lunch at one of the counters in amongst the other stalls. What a fascinating experience. We chose Kiosko Universal, on the edge of the market, because it looked busy and buzzy, and also because the things the smug-looking people seated at the counter were eating looked and smelled excellent. At first it was tricky to figure out what was going on, and how to get a seat, since every one of the 50 or so places was occupied. After observing for a few minutes, we saw that there was one guy, a maestro behind the counter, who was in control. Get his attention, and you'd be added to the queue, whose order seemed to exist only in his head. After that it was simply a matter of waiting patiently until you got the nod. BUT - try to jump the queue, or subvert the system, and you'd be ousted. He was like the "soup nazi" on that Seinfeld episode. Get in good with this man, and you were set.

We didn't have to wait too long at all, really, until we got the thumbs up. A shout came down from the other end of the counter, the gesture was made, and we were on our way. "Senor Blanco", Sandy was called, on account of his white shirt, we assumed. At our allotted seats, two people were finishing up. As soon as they stood, we were in. At this end, the counter was run by a junior soup nazi character, who was clearly having a whale of a time as he looked after his covers. Tall and thin, he was constantly in motion in the narrow galley kitchen: pouring drinks, taking orders (nothing at all written down), plating up, keeping an eye on proceedings. At this end, too, people who tried to sneak in and take a seat when they weren't in the system were told to get up and move on. One poor guy was told to get up twice after making his move too soon. He waited for most of the time it took us to eat our meal before finally getting seated and served. It was a fascinating little human drama.

On the recommendation of our guy (who was actually pretty friendly underneath), we ate a plate of mixed seafood: prawns, sweet teeny tiny clams, juicy razor clams, squid, and delicious fresh sardines. It was cooked very simply in garlic, parsley and olive oil, and was super fresh, as you'd expect. We broke the newly-established "no wine at lunch" rule since it seemed like a special occasion, and had a glass of a zingy local white (very generously poured, I must say). Also a plate of grilled vegetables: peppers, asparagus, artichokes, mushrooms and carrots, drowned in olive oil. Eating
this great fresh food, surrounded by market stalls full of wonderful stuff, watching the buzz of people shopping for dinner, bewildered tourists, traders all around.... well, I got a bit of a food high again. Which hasn't actually happened in a while. When the elements come together: great food, great setting, unique experience; I honestly do get a bit of a drug-like rush, I think. It was NOT just the wine.

It's a big day in Brcelona today: All Saint's Day, which is a festival, and also there's a big football game on tonight: Barcelona vs. Chelsea. There is a happy, festive mood in the air on the streets, which matched my festive air as I contemplated what joy there is to be had in sharing something delicious, in a delicious place, with a delicious man, in a delicious city.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Mallorca is a surprisingly interesting place.

I had been a bit wary of coming here; I'd heard it was a place a lot of English people come for their holidays to be with other English people, and it was nothing but chip shops and nightclubs by the sea. But in fact, Mallorca is a really beautiful island of interesting villages, interesting crops and rugged scenery. And you don't have to go near a chip shop.

For sure, there are a lot of people in parts of Mallorca who are less than stellar representatives of Great Britain. One evening we walked into the nearest town, Palmanova. It has a lovely beach, but the waterfront is wall-to-wall tacky bars and restaurants serving roast beef, yorkshire pudding, pies, chips, gravy and curries. Just the sort of thing you want to eat when in a hot, Spanish climate. Some of the bars advertise prominently that they show the English soaps: Coronation Street, Eastenders, Emmerdale. The people lope around, all mournful faces, socks and sandals and bum bags. After dinner (which was at one of the few places not to advertise "English breakfasts" in their window; it was mostly forgettable) we walked past a large bar where they were playing bingo. I'm not kidding. The place was packed with poms, who eyed us with less-than-friendly looks when we stood in the doorway transfixed, as if in a zoo.

Today we hired a couple of bikes and rode further afield, to Magaluf. Magaluf makes Palmanova look calm, serene and cosmopolitan. It was filled almost entirely with English people. Many of them - men and women - shared the same shape: bulbous would be one way to describe it; "apple" would be another. Young and old seemed to be sporting large, blobby bellies, even when the rest of their bodies were quite normal-sized. I noticed this trend among young women when we were in the UK, too; dietitians know this as "abdominal obesity" and I happen to know it is not healthy. It did not seem to stop this lot from scoffing down beers, pies and lasagnes at the beachside cafes. I tell you, I felt decidedly svelte and sporty zipping by on my bicycle. A man selling tickets in a booth at the beachside yelled out to me "La biciclette est formidable!" or words to that effect. I thanked him even though I wasn't sure if he was praising my bike, or the fact that I was on one.

As I said though; Mallorca is not all about tacky tourist spots. Inland, there are many nice villages. And a lot of good things growing. They have their own wine denominations, there are almonds and olives growing everywhere, and they seem to be quite serious about preserving and protecting local food and drink. There's sobrasada de Mallorca; a special, soft, spicy sausage. One of our favourite discoveries has been hierbas mallorcanos, which is a green, anise-flavoured digestif we have taken a bit of a liking to.

On the west coast of the island there is very little development, except for a few villages clinging to the steep hillsides which plunge quite spectacularly down to the sea, and the road which winds around it all. It's very beautiful and reminded us a bit of the west coast of the south island, except for the odd Spanish villa.

In fact, the infrastructure everywhere on this island pays tribute to the billions on tourist dollars pouring in; the roads and particularly the footpaths are amazing. It reminds me a bit of San Diego in places, actually. Really, really well set up, but just a little bit lifeless.

The place we are staying, the Punta Negra, has been another example of a random, last-minute decision which has worked out brilliantly. We could easily have ended up in a beachfront hotel, jostling for loungers around the pool with dozens of pasty, beer-swilling tourists. Instead we've been at a small, secluded, more-authentic-than-most resort where there's not a pie in sight and the restaurant is truly excellent. It's on its own little point with a wee private cove, and it's decidedly low key compared with many of the other pretentious resorts around here, where you could really be anywhere in the world. Here at least, we feel like we're in Spain. We've had truly excellent food in the restaurant: a tasty paella, perfectly cooked lamb racks and a superb duck confit that we have, between us, eaten three times now. And the restaurant staff are great; well-trained, professional, friendly and of course multi-lingual, which, this whole trip, I have found totally humbling.

The most fun thing about resorts, maybe, is watching the other people at the resort. We have a great little house, really, to live in here; it's two-storied and looks over the pool to the water. So we have spent a lot of time on our two terraces, people-watching. There has been drama - an altercation between an English man and a French lady over the pool loungers I thought was going to come to blows - and nakedness. (I still can't, unfortunately, erase from my memory the group of German men who emerged, dangling, from the sauna to jump in the pool while we were in the adjacent gym.) It's an interesting little petri dish of human behaviour, a resort. And it's been a nice breather before we head back to city life in Barcelona and London.

The jeans don't lie

I haven't had occasion to get into my bikini on this trip, before now. I think I look pretty good in it, really. Especially when you look at the general state of bodies around the pool. But there's no denying I now have a few new curves where there were slighter ones before.

Up until now I've been reasonably blase about the possibility of gaining weight. If my clothes still fit, which is my usual gage of what kind of shape my body's in, I figure I'm doing OK. I honestly couldn't tell you what I weighed before I came away, or any time in the last year, actually. I don't own scales. And on holiday it's been the same. Sandy has been complaining of his newly acquired belly (it's there, but you can't really see it when he's dressed), but for me the skirts, dresses and trousers I'm traveling with, everything still seemed to fit and I looked OK in it, so: so far, so good. That's what I thought. (Incidentally it's worth noting that clothing sizes in European countries are as confused as they are in NZ. In the UK I am either a size 10 or 12; and a small or a medium; in Europe I am either a 38 or a 40, a small or a medium or a large(!), or for chains that use American sizing, a 6 or an 8. Don't even get me started on the shoe sizing.)

Anyway when we got to Nice I put my jeans on to go to dinner. Now, other clothes can lie to you. Trousers with a bit of lycra, bias-cut dresses. They lull and flatter you into a false sense of skinniness. But jeans - my Paper Denim & Cloth, straight-leg, non-stretch jeans: these do not lie. The jeans are definitely tighter than they were before. The button is under strain. In fact, by the end of dinner I had to quietly undo the button under my shirt! This is not a feeling I'm too familiar with. And I don't really like it.

It had to happen of course. A person can't go around eating three-course lunches and drinking a bottle of wine a day and not gain weight. Not even me. The only other time I've ever put on weight in my life was when I lived in San Diego for six months. (That was not due to indulgence; it was because of poor-quality, low-flavour food and massive servings.) That time, once I got home and went back to my normal Kiwi diet I went back to normal. So I guess this will happen again with us once we get back home, into our normal routine, do some activity and lay off the booze for a while.

I actually don't mind a little extra roundness in certain places (hips, bum). It creates a certain feminine shape that I quite like. But the belly.... the belly is not me. The belly has got to go.

So we decided it was time to slow the decline. It's baby steps: no more wine with lunch (except in exceptional circumstances) and a bit more exercise is called for. We have actually been visiting the hotel gym here and putting in a bit of time on the machines. We have been doing a bit of active sightseeing - you can see me in my sportive mode here as we biked around Mallorca. And despite the sumptuous buffet on offer at breakfast, I've gone back to a more normal-for-me breakfast of cereal, fruit and yoghurt. It's no great hardship. I was getting sick of pain au chocolat anyway.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Menu of the day

I can't figure out why nobody in New Zealand does the whole menu du jour thing. It's such a good idea: menu du jour, menu del dio, whatever: just a set menu, at a set price, that's different every day and features whatever's good and abundant at the time.

We quickly figured out that this was the way to get interesting, seasonal food in most restaurants, starting in France and working our way down. It's usually extremely good value, too. Although even posh places do it, and the price varies accordingly. In France it's typically a choice of entree plus main, or main plus dessert for a set price, or you can have all three for a bit more. In Italy it seems to be two or three courses, set price. Best of all though, was when I discovered that in Spain, there's actually a government regulation that says restaurants have to offer a menu of the day! It's so workers have a good, cheap meal at lunchtime. Now that's my kind of government.

The first place we encountered this was our first meal in Barcelona, at a cool cafe in a quiet square in the Gothic quarter. It was called Mi Burrito y yo, which may mean "my donkey and me" (If I actually spoke Spanish I would know). Anyway, the menu del dio there was superb. Firstly we had the very typical Catalonian tomato bread, which our waitress, sensing us to be new to the concept, demonstrated. Toasted bread, tomatoes and garlic cloves are brought to the table. You cut the garlic clove, rub it over the bread, then cut the tomato and rub and squish it into the bread on top. Then you sprinkle with olive oil and salt, and devour. Fantastic! Interactive and delicious; my favourite kind of food.

Anyway that was just a starter. Our entrees were a salad with manchego for Sandy (not super exciting, except for the cheese) and a lovely bowl of bean and sausage soup for me, which was savoury and tasty and healthy. I won that round. Next was a whole fish for me, with plain potatoes and a bit of a tomato-based sauce. It was fresh and delicious and perfectly cooked. Sandy had a very nicely roasted bit of rabbit with roasted peppers and an accompanying bowl of aioli which I had to dip into for my spuds. We will not be getting colds any time soon with all that garlic in us. All this plus a half bottle of local rose, a bottle of water, coffee and dessert was - wait for it - 10 euros each. That was the bargain of the week and had us saying 'Barcelona, muy bueno".


Barcelona is really our kind of city. It's a big call, I know, but I really think I like it better than Paris.

It's a city of space, of trees and grass, of secret gardens, and of beautiful buildings. Everywhere you look, there's some amazing structure. Even very utilitarian buildings have something special about them. Public art is everywhere, and good things to eat are everywhere, too.

There are not too many people here; or that's how it seems; perhaps it's because the streets are wide and studded with trees. Sandy particularly loved how the tram tracks are set over grass, so there are lovely green strips through the streets. The trams themselves are great: frequent, cheap and new-looking. Trams are such a great mode of transport because you can see what's going by, unlike undergrounds. So we have had a really good look at the city during our tram trips, which have been long because of our distance from the city.

Of course Barcelona is well known as the home of many great modernist buildings, and was the home of the famous architect Antoni Gaudi, whose presence and influence is everywhere. No more so than at the Sagrada Familia; the great cathedral he designed and which is still under construction 125 years after the foundations were first laid. It must be the most-visited construction site in the world; it is due to be completed in 2020 but from what I have read this is quite an optimistic estimate. The bits that are complete are quite incredible, and even someone with only a passing interest in architecture can see genius at work here. The two finished facades are beautiful, especially the main facade, which looks, as one description said, like someone poured wax over a gothic cathedral. Up close you can see that every shape is actually a tree or a bird or a flower. It's quite awe-inspiring, in much the same way that York Minster is, or the Duomo in Florence. I was intrigued to see something that looked very much like a Nikau palm in amongst the carved jungle.

The thing that really got me, though, was that Gaudi spent 40 years of his life working on this project. For fifteen of those years he worked on nothing else. Imagine having a magnificent obsession like that, and the ability to pursue it above all else? The man is even buried beneath the cathedral. (Spookily, Gaudi was killed when hit by a tram. He carried no identification and no-one knew who he was; he was taken to a paupers' hospital before they realised this was the world-famous acrchitect).

There's a lot of life in Barcelona, and although we read all kinds of spooky warnings before we got here that it's rife with pickpockets and bag-snatchers, we have felt nothing but safe. We've walked all over the place; along the main throughfare, the Diagonal, which is like a wider, greener Champs Elysees, down the Rambla, which is the main touristy drag through the old town. We watched singers with guitars, human statues and tango dancers perform (a bonus for me; I've been away from tango for two months!), and then wandered around the waterfront, where Christopher Columbus points out to sea from a high monument. Amusingly, he is not pointing towards the new world, but rather in the completely opposite direction. Towards, in fact, Mallorca, which is our next destination.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Unexpected thrills

We have had some of the nicest surprises, food-wise, at unexpected places.

For example: in Italy, on the autostrada - the fast, toll motorways - are lots of truck stop-type places, where you can stop and fill up with petrol, use the toilet and eat. These are not the kind of places you'd expect to find much in the way of good things to eat. But how wrong you would be! The truck stops are fantastic! There are excellent, fresh panini and pizza. There are salad bars with tasty, fresh selections of proscuitto, mushrooms, rocket, salade nicoise, or you can make your own combinations. There are main course choices of pasta and risotto, and there's a carver standing by to carve roast meat to your liking. Desserts - no problem - if you want a pretty good tiramisu or creme brulee it's probably there; and of course there's wine and beer and bread. There's not a greasy burger, chip, or deep-fried anything in sight. Honestly, the meals we had on the road, at truck stops in Italy, were nicer than three-quarters of the restaurant meals we ate in the UK. This says a lot about the general love of food in these respective countries, I think.

It also says a lot that, should you feel like it on your way through the truck stop, you can also buy there all kinds of good cheese, chocolate, salami, ham, olive oil, pasta, even truffle paste. It's not exactly BP Connect.

Another place we found unexpectedly good food was our hotel in Barcelona. We'd struck a weekend when, apparently, there was a massive conference on and every hotel in Barcelona was full. Consequently we ended up in a nondescript Novotel about 12km from the town centre. It was new and clean and bright, but nothing special and certainly not the type of place you'd expect to eat anything beyond bog-standard, generic, mediocre hotel food as found everywhere from Hamilton to Delhi. Our view was of a motorway onramp and a carwash, and a giant, red digital clock and temperature monitor on the outside of another hotel (actually, this proved quite useful in letting us know what day it was, and helped with our wardrobe decisions).

But quel surprise when we ate the food! The night we arrived we ordered room service dinner because it was 11 o'clock and we'd just spent all day on a train and were exhausted. I really wished I was less tired so I could have relished my meal more. Fresh, crisp salad, tender tuna, roasted peppers, grilled meats, tasty sauces; plus tomato bread, fresh fruit salad and cute wee bottles of olive oil and balsamic to dress the salad. It may be the nicest room service meal I've ever had.

Another night we ate a dinner of tapas in the restaurant. Barcelonans follow a different timetable to people in other countries. They eat breakfast as normal, but lunch is not usually until 2 or 2.30, followed by siesta (when shops and offices close) until 4.30 or 5pm. Then everything opens up again and they work until 7 or 8. Dinner really doesn't start until 9.30 or 10pm, and many restaurants don't even open for dinner until 9. If you're out before then eating dinner, you're eating in the company of other tourists.

This timetable actually works pretty well for us, since we have turned into people who really don't like to get up before 10. In Italy particularly we were often rushed into lunch a wee bit, because the kitchens all closed at 2.30. This way we can have lunch till 3.30, then have our own wee siesta. It's quite civilised.

Anyway: back to dinner. Even at 9.30 we were the first customers in the restaurant. We didn't care really; we were expecting something average anyway. But it turned out to be a source of unexpected inspiration. We had a fabulous soup of cockles and fresh artichokes, flavoured with smoky Spanish ham, and another of spicy lentils. Then a fantastic dish of piquillo peppers - sweet, red and roasted, stuffed with braised oxtail. Yum yum yum! This I added to the list of "delicious things stuffed with other things" I have eaten on this trip.

I think Spanish food is basic, hearty and good. I happen to know there is a lot of complexity to it too; but so far we've only scratched the surface here. We have had one paella (unremarkable, although I do love the theatrical way it is served: brought to the table in its cooking dish, and served lovingly by the waiter). We have had a very good roast chicken (again at an unlikely, plastic cafeteria opposite the Sagrada Familia) and some tasty baby fried fish, and some very nice tomato-based salads. The wine is good: fruity rosados and very good, inexpensive Cava. Any country where bubbly is practically free is alright with me.

Recent highlights

I am a bit behind, I realise, in reporting on where we've been and what we've eaten. We've had a week on the move. But some recent meal highlights have been:

We swanned around Portofino feeling quite posh; it's that kind of place. Actually it's gorgeous; a postcard of a place where cute multi-coloured buildings tumble into the deep, blue bay. At a quayside restaurant I had a very good fish cooked Ligurian-style, in white wine, pinenuts and green olives. They brought the fish out to me to see after it had been cooked, and asked if I wanted it fillleted or if I wanted to do it myself. I thought this was a nice touch. The fish itself was perfectly cooked and flavoursome, as a fish should be.

Nice is a big city, but it feels comfy and small. The night we arrived we'd driven most of the day from Italy, so we were a bit jaded. All we wanted was something easy and to fall into bed. We settled on an Italian restaurant; it looked popular and bustly and easy. What a surprise I had; a dish of squid-ink spaghetti with clams and fresh tomatoes and chilli; it was superb! As good as any pasta I had in Italy, in fact. I devoured an enormous bowl full of it. The tiramisu was less successful; Sandy has been (bless him) doing a systematic personal survey of Tiramisu in several countries. This was not one of the better ones, being a bit too tricky and deconstructed for his liking, presented in a dinky little preserving jar. It hardly tasted like tiramisu to me at all, which was a shame.